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Calhoun schools to seek release from desegregation case

Saks High School

Saks High School lets out of class at the end of the day. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

A lawyer for Calhoun County Schools intends to go before a federal judge next month to argue that the school system is in compliance with a decades-old court order to desegregate schools.

School officials say they’ll make no changes to policy after Dec. 18 if Judge Annemarie Carney Axon declares that the school system has achieved “unitary status.” But they’ll no longer have court officials monitoring their efforts to recruit minority teachers.

“It’s time,” said Whit Colvin, the school system’s attorney. Colvin said the school system has made progress in hiring minority teachers and rolling back disparities in student discipline, two areas in which the courts have found the system lacking in recent years.

“We’re making a good faith effort to dismantle any system of segregation,” he said.

Enforcing Brown v. Board

The county’s school system has been under a court order in Lee v. Macon, the court case that helped desegregate many Alabama schools, since Aug. 16, 1971, court documents show. Integration became the law of the land with the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, but schools in many areas were slow to comply.

Numbers collected by The Anniston Star in 1971, when the local case was still in court, show that black and white children were already attending school together in some of the county’s largest schools at the time. Rural schools such as Roy Webb, Webster’s Chapel and Williams were still all-white. Calhoun County Training School was all-black. Mostly-white schools in Oxford had split off from the county a year before into their own school system.

Since then the court has monitored the county’s school system with an eye toward halting any action that would tend to re-segregate schools – the same system that has been in place in schools across the state. Among other things, Calhoun County had to get court approval to open or close schools. The school system has only occasionally run afoul of that provision, as it did in 2007, when a judge criticized the system for beginning construction of White Plains Middle School without informing the courts.

The judge allowed the system to complete the school.

Benchmarking progress

Judges released the system from most of the provisions of the court case in 2015, but courts continued to monitor hiring of minority teachers.At the time, minority teachers made up only 6 percent of the faculty, and seven of the district’s 18 schools had no black teachers.

In numbers reported last year, the district still had a 6 percent black teaching force, though only two schools had no black teachers and 13 percent of principals and vice principals were black. (The student body is 84 percent white, 15 percent black, with 1 percent from other groups.)

Court documents also outline the school’s efforts to recruit more black teachers, largely by seeking graduates from historically black schools such as Alabama State University and by hiring consultants to help.

“With the teacher shortage we’re all facing, it’s been difficult, but I do think we’ve made a dent in minority hiring,” said Superintendent Donald Turner.

The courts in 2015 also took Calhoun County to task for its disciplinary actions against minority students, concluding that between 2011 and 2013 black students were “significantly more likely” to be referred for discipline compared to white students.

The county took on a new approach to discipline, known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. According to court documents, the school system saw discipline referrals drop by almost half – across the entire student body – from 2014 to 2017.

Turner said he doesn’t expect the school system to change any of its efforts at diversity if the judge does let the system out of the court order.

Attempts to reach lawyers for the original desegregation plaintiffs were unsuccessful Monday. A lawyer for the federal government, which is also a party in the case, said she couldn’t comment on the case.

In recent months, activists in Anniston’s Ward 4 have talked about separating from the city or disbanding the city’s school system. Education experts have cited court desegregation orders as one reason a merger of city and county schools couldn’t happen.

Turner said he’s heard talk of the Ward 4 exit proposal, and he said the county’s push for unitary status isn’t connected to it.

“We’ve been working on this a lot longer than they’ve been working on that,” he said. 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.